Venezuela's Cultural Revolution

It says a lot about the music scene in Caracas that within minutes of entering Venezuela's newest concert hall, I am already ignoring two world exclusives. Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel, arguably the two most sought-after conductors in the world, are busy at work before my eyes.

By Neil Fisher - The Times

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Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra with their acclaimed conductor, Gustavo Dudamel
Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra with their internationally acclaimed conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. www.sjvsb.com
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An ambitious system pays dividends for young musicians.

It says a lot about the music scene in Caracas that within minutes of entering Venezuela's newest concert hall, I am already ignoring two world exclusives. Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel, arguably the two most sought-after conductors in the world, are busy at work before my eyes. Rattle, the British principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is rehearsing the next day's performance of Carmen; Dudamel, the Venezuelan firebrand who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is trying out his first La Traviata in the comfort of home.

But I am scorning the super-maestros. Heading deeper into the bowels of the Centre for Social Action Through Music, Caracas's three-year-old flagship music complex, I have an appointment with an army, not a general. I find them, the 150 teenage players of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, bound for London in two weeks, knee-deep in the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, at a breakneck tempo that would leave many a more high-profile group gasping for breath. Their conductor, an urbane 27-year-old called Christian Vasquez, is cool as a cucumber; 15 minutes in, I am the only one who is in a sweat.

That's only partly because it is a tropical 30C outside and this outsized orchestra is crammed into a rehearsal room that can't quite contain it.

What's really alarming is the realisation that what began as a one-off - the amazing success of one Venezulean youth orchestra - has turned into the reinvention of the concept of an orchestra.

It is only three years since the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the first Venezuelan classical music ensemble to achieve international fame, first played in Britain at the Proms under the baton of Dudamel, a landmark event that achieved a million hits on YouTube before the BBC rather uncharitably pulled the plug.

Now the focus is changing. The 29-year-old Dudamel began his tenure at the LA Philharmonic in September last year. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is a youth orchestra in name only: most of the players are in their late 20s and some have children of their own. "So it's time to show that we are more than Gustavo," says Eduardo Mendez, chief executive of the National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela. "It's all part of the Sistema; that's what we want to show to the world."

Sistema - the system - is a magic word in Caracas, one that unlocks doors while hundreds of others seem to be slamming shut.

Venezuela is careering towards a social and economic crisis. The capital is in the grip of a gang murder epidemic; it is officially the most dangerous city in the world. The roller-coaster ride of Hugo Chavez's socialist regime, meanwhile, continued with last week's elections, in which his party sustained heavy losses, mostly because of high inflation and unemployment. I asked a Sistema spokesman if Chavez had attended any of their concerts; the answer I got was that El Presidente no longer attends public events because of the humiliating booing that he would provoke.

Which makes the state-funded but privately buttressed Sistema all the more remarkable. It has been going for 38 years, through numerous regimes, under the overall supervision of the frail but fanatically devoted Jose Antonio Abreu, delivering music education to any child who wants it - the number now tops 300,000 - and a network of regional and state youth orchestras across the country.

A stiff breeze looks as if it would fell this diabetic septuagenarian. But Abreu remains the motor that makes the Sistema tick.

For one thing, he dictated every part of the construction of this new concert hall (down to the seat covers) and refused to move the Sistema's staff from their grimy office in one of Caracas's most unpleasant high-rises, so that every inch of the centre could be devoted to music-making. It is through slightly gritted teeth that one of his aides, stuck in the old HQ, relays this information.

And Abreu still mentors every musician he can. "He made me feel trust in myself," recalls the softly spoken Vasquez, whose Sistema journey began when he eavesdropped, aged eight, on a rehearsal in his home town, San Sebastian de los Reyes. "I stood there, hypnotised," he tells me. "And when I looked up again my mum and dad were already two streets ahead." Four weeks later he was playing the violin.

Vasquez was once the concertmaster of the SBYO and he has been conducting since he was 16. ("Nobody told me to start studying, I just did.") He is bullish about his Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, named after a 19th-century Venezuelan pianist and opera singer. "In Venezuela, we're seeing the evolution of musicians," he says. "When we were the same age in the Simon Bolivar as the players of the Teresa Carreno are now [between 14 and 19], we just didn't play as well."

Mendez, charged with managing the numerous projects conceived by Abreu, says that in three years the number of nucleos - the music education centres where the Sistema truly begins - has increased from 150 to 230. Now that they are adults, the Simon Bolivars have turned fully professional under Dudamel's watch. The Teresa Carreno Orchestra, Mendez says, eventually will become another professional orchestra.

"And each state will have its own professional orchestra, with a new building in each state where it can be based. So we're creating a new cultural life for each city." It also means that the Sistema is no longer just the provider of amateur children's groups but responsible for what is surely the most ambitious cultural program in the world.

But if the Sistema is quietly going pro, that doesn't mean it is losing the connections that make it so precious.

Alejandro Carreno and Veronica Balda are violinists who have played together in the Simon Bolivar since they were children. Now married, they work as orchestra members and as teachers, mostly supporting the players of the Teresa Carreno Orchestra.

Neither of them can imagine leaving Venezuela for foreign orchestras. "What we are doing here is so good for the country, for ourselves, for the Sistema, for Latin America, for the youth of the world," Carreno says. "If the talent of the Sistema Venezuela goes away, to wherever, it just disappears." He could get a higher salary elsewhere, but he says he and his wife earn a decent wage. "We live comfortably, we have what we need. And we can play for Gustavo Dudamel, we can play for [Italian conductor] Claudio Abbado. All these wonderful maestros . . . that doesn't have a price."

Abreu's mission won its global headlines initially for saving kids from drugs, guns and gangs. It undoubtedly does that, though whether free music education can save children from deprivation in Scotland, Norfolk or California - where trial schemes based on the same model are up and running - is less obvious when there are myriad different opportunities, and distractions, available.

However the Sistema frames its mission - and under Chavez it has stressed social justice more often than it used to - the most important lesson for the world may be the way it makes music a communal and shared process.

I notice this most strongly at a simple repertory concert in the city university's spartan auditorium. A group of children, none of them older than eight, has come from an out-of-town nucleo to hear the Bolivars. Though gasping with excitement to see their heroes, they are shushed by elders, even during the pauses between movements. Eventually they sit rapt. If these kids are not the next generation of virtuosos, they are already guaranteed audience members with a reason to care. The Sistema is a holistic movement that's as pragmatic as it is evangelising: once you're in, you are committed.

For many, of course, it's the fun that you tend to remember from a date with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, not least the moment when they all put on their Venezuelan sports jackets and start ripping into Bernstein's Mambo as an encore. Although Vasquez confirms that the Teresa Carreno players have packed the tracksuits, he'd prefer to talk about his orchestra's future on the world stage.

"The danger is that they'll just want to replicate past successes, where everybody [was] just thrilled at the sight of this extraordinary South American party," Rattle says.

"But everyone needs to get an appreciation of what they give musically, what the work really is. So we don't think we can do the Sistema in three or four years and then, bingo, we've got a big party playing Mambo."

Not knowing if he will grasp the expression, I ask Alejandro Carreno, who has been part of that party and received standing ovations across the world, whether he's tempted to rest on his laurels.

"There was one time we were rehearsing at something like 10pm at night," he recalls. "We were really tired. So maestro Abreu told us about what it is to be, as you say, sleeping on your laurels. You can never be doing that. That's for other people."

This article was originally published in The Times on October 1st, and re-published by The Australian on October 05, 2010.